Small towns are reputed to be close. Almost like family. Residents stick together. They have your back. They protect you. They keep your secrets.
And that’s how it’s been for 30 years in Skidmore, Mo., since someone shot Ken Rex McElroy, the notorious “town bully” on the morning of July 10, 1981, in front of a crowd of at least 40 people.
Skidmore is just 13 miles as the crow flies from my home town of Maryville, the county seat of Nodaway County. My dad had family and friends in the tiny rural town, but he would never admit to me what he knew about the events of that hot summer day.
No one in town would admit anything. Not even the FBI could get people in Skidmore to talk.
The names of two of the shooters are revealed in an epilogue to the 1989 best-selling book “In Broad Daylight,” which is being released as an eBook today on the 31st anniversary of the killing.
But the names may not really matter. “I personally believe it’s a mistake to put too much emphasis on who pulled the trigger,” author Harry N. MacLean told me. If it hadn’t happened that day, it would have been someone else the next day.
The town was fed up with being terrorized by Ken Rex, as McElroy was known. He had shot a local farmer in the stomach and a grocer in the neck, the latter in a dispute over a piece of candy. He raped girls as young as 12 years old and married two of them to keep them from testifying against him. He burned down the house of the parents of one of the young women he raped. He made his living stealing hogs and cattle and always seemed to have plenty of cash but never had a job. He threatened anyone who dared to stand up to him.
Law enforcement seemed powerless. Ken Rex hired a Kansas City lawyer who bragged he represented the mob and who managed repeatedly to keep McElroy out of jail.
“I understand why they did it and why they felt they were all alone,” MacLean answered when I asked if he thought what the town did was right.
Larry King asked him that same question, and MacLean said he gave the same answer. During the commercial break, King told him he didn’t think murder was ever right.
“I asked him, ‘What if someone was raping your daughter?’ ”
McElroy had finally been convicted that spring of assault against grocer Bo Bowencamp after David Baird, the newly hired prosecuting attorney of Nodaway County, won one of his first jury trials. McElroy was out on bond after his lawyer appealed the case, but he’d been seen with a rifle in D&G Tavern. A hearing was scheduled July 10 for revoking bail.
On the morning that Ken Rex was gunned down, his court hearing had been postponed. Instead of heading to jail, he headed to the D&G Tavern in Skidmore with wife Trena in his Silverado pickup.
McElroy went inside, bought a package of cigarettes and returned to the truck. As he sat, lighting a cigarette, shots rang out, shattering the windows. Someone grabbed Trena and took her to safety inside the bank.
Now prosecutor Baird was faced with a case making national headlines. Ironically, his dad had convinced him to take the job because “nothing ever happens here.”
A coroner’s jury, a local grand jury and a federal grand jury failed to return any indictments. Even the FBI got into the act, without success.
“Talk that it’s this person and a live witness willing to say it in court are two different things,” Baird told me.
The national media descended upon Skidmore. Playboy, Rolling Stone and “60 Minutes” all did stories. Headlines called it a “vigilante” killing and accused the town’s residents of taking the law into their own hands.
MacLean doesn’t think the killing was a planned vigilante action on the part of the townspeople. He thinks two or three people got impulsive that day. And that the town showed its loyalty by closing ranks.
He became intrigued with the story after seeing a photo of Ken Rex in Time magazine. An arbitration lawyer in Denver, he’d wanted to write a book. Here was his chance. He eventually moved in with Q and Margaret Goslee, a prominent and well-respected farm family near Skidmore.
The story of how he came to write “In Broad Daylight” has become fodder for another book, to be released in a few months. The 1989 book was updated in 2006 after Baird released files from the sheriff’s department to MacLean, and now an eBook is available.
The story has spawned one TV movie starring Brian Dennehy; MacLean reports that another producer is interested in a possible film.
Today’s release of the eBook is marked by a Facebook event. I can’t help but wonder how social media might have affected the events of 1981. Most likely a video of the shooting would have gone viral, just like the recent video of an Afghan woman executed on suspicion of adultery. Could the town have maintained its silence with Facebook and Twitter feeds? Would cellphones have made reporting Ken Rex’s alleged crimes and whereabouts easier? Maybe justice would have been served in a more conventional fashion.
The town has not fared well since the shooting. It made international headlines when Bobbie Jo Stinnett was killed for her unborn baby. Teenager Branson Perry disappeared in 2001 and has never been found.
The population has dwindled from 437 in 1980 to 284 in 2010. The grocery, the bank, the tavern, the gas station are all gone.
Trena left town, too. She married and moved to a small town in southern Missouri where she raised a family. She died this year on her 55th birthday. I’d always wondered what happened to Ken Rex’s widow, who was yet another of his victims. He used to follow the school bus, honking until the driver pulled over and let the sixth-grade Trena out.
That’s the kind of guy Ken Rex was.
Richard Stratton, now retired, was a Missouri Highway Patrol trooper and reputed to be the only person who wasn’t afraid of McElroy. He told the Kansas City Star in 2010: “Those were fathers and grandfathers on the street in Skidmore that day….They did what they did because we didn’t do our job.
“Then they went home and kept their mouths shut.”
Diana Reese, a native of Nodaway County, is a freelance writer in Kansas City. Follow her on Twitter @dianareese.